Licenses for lawbreakers -- the sequel

Posted: Jun 07, 2004 12:00 AM

 Forget the hype, threats and rumors about a deal brewing in Sacramento, California's capital. The state is not going to enact a bill to allow illegal immigrants to apply for driver's licenses this year or any time soon.

 It's bad politics, as the history of similar bills should make clear. In his first term, bygone Gov. Gray Davis vetoed measures that would have allowed illegal immigrants to apply for driver's licenses, and he lost a considerable chunk of the Latino vote when he ran for re-election. But when Davis finally signed such a bill, SB60, he lost his job.

 California legislators then promptly repealed SB60, in order, they said, to thwart a voter initiative that would have allowed voters to recall the measure -- and maybe, someday, them.

 SB60 author Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, proclaimed that the Legislature's about-face was a good thing because the new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had agreed to work with him on a bill this year that would be more acceptable to voters.

 Did Cedillo actually believe that? At the time, I figured that Cedillo and his supporters were running away from the bill in order to save their own sorry political skins -- and that they had to know Schwarzenegger, no fool, would not sign on to such an unpopular measure. I thought they were just pretending to believe there was a deal to save face.

 Wrong, says Garry South, Davis' one-time political guru: Cedillo genuinely believed that the governator and he had a deal on a new bill -- even if Schwarzenegger limited his public commitment to a pledge to consider a new bill. South says that Cedillo was "sucker-punched."

 And to South, there would be "poetic justice" if Cedillo's new bill (SB1160) "never gets Gov. Schwarzenegger's signature, given the way (supporters) handled this in 2003."

 Make that "mishandled." SB60 was the worst possible illegal-immigrant driver's license bill. It would have allowed illegal immigrants to get licenses without a criminal-record check in their home country. Early versions of the measure had included security safeguards, background checks among them. But when Cedillo and company saw that a desperate Davis would sign virtually any bill handed to him, they handed him the worst. Voters were doubly outraged at what they perceived as a bad idea made worse in its final form. The rest, like Davis, is history.

 Now, Cedillo returns to the scene of the crime. Somehow, he and his pals in Sacramento don't share the voters' outrage that lawmakers would pass a law to reward lawbreakers. Once again, Cedillo is going out of his way to thumb his nose at the law. His new bill would prohibit illegal immigrants convicted of a crime from receiving a driver's license -- unless they were convicted of driving without a license. Then it's OK.

 When Team Arnold floated the idea of marking illegal immigrants' driver's licenses to show they are not legal residents, Cedillo complained to reporters that the very notion "invites discrimination." Actually, immigration law demands discrimination -- it prohibits employers from hiring illegal immigrants.

 Cedillo compared such a mark to the yellow star Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. He can play the race card, but it won't work. A Los Angeles Times poll found that 38 percent of Latino voters strongly opposed giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

 Schwarzenegger's staff doesn't come right out and say it, but it's pretty clear that he'll have no problem rejecting Cedillo's latest piece of work on security grounds. "It's important to make sure that you have confidence in the document that is being provided by the host country," said spokeswoman Margita Thompson. Some countries have a reputation -- she wouldn't say which -- for handing out IDs without verifying the information. That's not security.

 Cedillo's office did not answer my requests for an interview before my deadline, but when we talked last year, Cedillo claimed that the motive behind his measure was to "restore highway safety." Methinks if that were his true goal, Cedillo would have increased penalties for those who drive without a license or without insurance. Instead, he is poised to wink at the practice.

 There is muted talk that some members of the Latino Caucus might withhold their votes to pass the state budget unless Schwarzenegger agrees to sign Cedillo's new bill. I hope they try. Voters recalled Davis because they believed he put special interests before the greater good.

 If there are lawmakers who want to test that interpretation, so be it.